The Novelty of Market Society

by Caleb Roberts

The society we live in: In contrast to tribal, ancestral, or feudal societies, ours is a market society.  The institution of the market is here the basic organization of the community.  Blood tie, ancestor worship, or feudal allegiance is replaced by market relations.  Such a state of affairs is new; for an institutionalized supply-demand-price mechanism — a market — was never more than a subordinate feature of social life.  On the contrary, the elements of the economic system were found, as a rule, imbedded in other than economic relations, such as kin, religion, or charisma.  The motives for which individuals participated in economic institutions were not usually themselves “economic,” that is, they did not arise from fear of otherwise going without the necessities of life.  It is precisely such a fear of individual starvation as an inducement to hunt, catch, till, or harvest that was unknown in the majority of societies — in effect, in all except the society of classical laissez-faire, or such as were modeled upon it.

For never before the nineteenth century was the production and distribution of material goods and services in society organized through a market system.  This stupendous innovation was achieved by drawing the factors of production, labor, and land into that system.  Labor and land were themselves made into commodities; that is, they were treated as if they were produced for sale.  Of course they were not actually commodities, since they were either not produced at all (as land), or, if they were, this was not for sale (as labor). (34)

Karl Polanyi | “Economics and the Freedom to Shape Our Social Destiny” in For A New West: Essays, 1919-1958.